Power Play: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Jaczko Resigns after Push by Industry

Outgoing NRC Chmn. Jaczko testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last year.

The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, submitted his resignation Monday morning. Chairman Jaczko, a former aid to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) who holds a PhD in particle physics, was originally appointed to the NRC in 2005, and elevated to chairman in 2009. Jaczko said he will relinquish his post upon confirmation of a replacement.

Jaczko’s announcement is hard to separate from pressing questions about the safety of commercial nuclear power in the United States–especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Japan–the debate over the future of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, signs of shifting power dynamics in Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, the influence of wealthy and well-connected private industry on public policy.

As has been discussed here before, Greg Jaczko has been at the center of an orchestrated controversy for much of the last year, with nuclear industry lobbyists, Republican members of Congress, and other NRC commissioners pressing for the chairman’s ouster. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been an especially dogged critic of Jaczko, holding hours of hearings and serving as the driving force behind two inspector general reports on the allegedly hostile workplace environment at the NRC.

Issa, it must be noted, represents a district that includes the extremely troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The plant is currently offline as regulators try to determine the root causes of radiation leaks and rapid degradation of copper tubing used to move radioactive steam in and out of the reactors. The Orange County Republican has received copious campaign contributions from the companies that operate and maintain San Onofre.

Issa called hearings (while calling for Jaczko’s head) last year after the four other commissioners made public their letter to the White House complaining about Jaczko’s managerial style. The complaint revolved around a handful of issues that help explain the apparent urgency behind the anti-Jaczko putsch.

First, critics were upset about the way that Jaczko helped end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site. Yucca had proven problematic for a number of reasons–environmental, economic, security, and social–and had long been the target of Nevada politicians (most notably, Senate Majority Leader Reid), who felt their state had been dealt with unfairly in the original selection process.

The Obama administration had seemed to agree, and had the Department of Energy withdraw a request for the licensing of Yucca Mountain. In addition, very little money remained in Yucca’s budget, and no more has been approved.

But the nuclear industry desperately needs an answer to the problem (crisis, really) of long-term nuclear waste storage, and Yucca Mountain is the only site that has even been started. (It is nowhere near finished.) Without a place to move “spent” fuel and the other dangerous detritus of the process, nuclear power cannot realistically expand the number of rectors in the US, nor can it long continue to maintain and refuel those already in operation.

The nuclear industry, through its proxies in Congress and on the NRC, has complained that Jaczko didn’t allow advocates for Yucca to perpetuate the process. Most recently, a fight went public when President Obama nominated NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for another term over the vocal objections of Senator Reid and his colleague Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Of special contention, the role Svinicki played in drafting the documents that called for the construction of the Yucca repository.

Second, the dissenting NRC commissioners complained that Jaczko used his emergency powers as chairman to guide US policy in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that caused a triple-meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. Complainants seem especially upset that Jaczko recommended evacuation of American citizens from a 50-mile radius around the crippled nuclear plant–a call he made with the support of NRC experts and in coordination with the State Department. Radioactive contamination from Fukushima has, of course, been found across Japan, even beyond the 50-mile limit. (In the US, 65 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, and late in December, federal regulators moved to scale back requirements for evacuations and emergency drills around commercial reactors.)

In the wake of the initial accident, Jaczko sought recommendations for US nuclear safety. The Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Accident produced a collection of basic (and, as discussed here, rather weak) recommendations last summer. Chairman Jaczko tried to start the process of turning those recommendations into rules–a process that could stretch beyond five years–but met objections from each of the other four commissioners. Jaczko also wanted lessons learned from Fukushima included in construction and licensing permits granted to four AP1000 reactors (two to be built in Georgia, two in South Carolina), but the chairman was outvoted four-to-one by his fellow NRC members.

The third (and most often referenced) complaint fired at Jaczko was that he had created a “hostile work environment,” especially for women. Though Svinicki, the only woman on the commission, lamented Jaczko’s tone, the specific “charge” (if it can be called that) was brought by Commissioner William Magwood. Magwood said there were female staffers that Jaczko had brought to tears, though none of those women personally came forward (because, it was said last year, they did not want to relive the humiliation).

The story gained extra prominence when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY; Kentucky, by the way, home to a nuclear waste nightmare called Paducah) attempted to use this alleged incident to disrupt the rising narrative of the Republican “war on women.” McConnell and others from his side of the aisle took to the microphones to denounce the administration’s treatment of whistleblowers and praise the apparently brave and much put-upon Svinicki.

In what seems to be a rare case where the public’s relative lack of interest in nuclear regulation can be called a positive, McConnell’s gambit failed. . .

. . . at least in derailing the “War on Women” story. (It also probably owes much to the GOP actually continuing its war on women.)

But when it came to serving the nuclear industry, McConnell’s contribution to the ouster of Jaczko will likely be rewarded. . . with industry contributions of the monetary kind.

Chairman Jaczko’s resignation comes just before issues of his workplace demeanor would likely again dominate headlines (if, again, any story regarding nuclear regulation can be imagined to dominate this year’s headlines), as a second IG report on the NRC work environment is due next month, and Issa had already promised more hearings. But Jaczko’s announcement would likely not have come without the intervention or, at least, tacit blessing of Senator Reid. As mentioned, Reid has been Jaczko’s best friend on the Hill, and Jaczko has helped Reid and the Obama administration move away from making Nevada the final resting place for a country’s worth of hazardous nuclear waste.

After President Obama defied Reid’s private and public requests, and nominated Kristine Svinicki for another term as NRC commissioner, the Senator had a choice to make–and some political calculations to do.

While, to the nuclear industry, Jaczko represented an insufficiently pliant regulator–be it concerning NTTF recommendations, fire safety rules, or waste storage–to Harry Reid, the NRC chairman is most importantly a staunch opponent of the Yucca project. And Jaczko is the only one of the five NRC commissioners who meets that description. With Jaczko’s public image under attack and his ability to function as chairman challenged by the other commissioners and nuclear-friendly forces in Congress, questions of how much longer he could survive would have continued throughout the year. With that baggage, and with Senator Reid’s Democratic majority and possibly even his leadership position up in the air come November, there seems little chance that Obama would have shown Jaczko the same deference he did Svinicki and offered to nominate him for another term when the chairman’s current one expired in 2013.

As it is custom for NRC commissioners to be nominated in pairs–one from the Democrats, one from the Republicans–to smooth their paths to confirmation, Reid likely looked at Jaczko’s predicament, Svinicki’s nomination, and his own future and saw this as a moment to make some lemonade out of a crate of rotting lemons.

Act now, and Reid would play a prominent role in choosing Jaczko’s replacement–who could theoretically get confirmed alongside Svinicki for a full, five-year term–wait, continue to back Jaczko and fight the administration and the GOP on Svinicki, and the best Reid could hope for is a year of controversy over NRC personnel and an uncertain amount of influence in shaping the future of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Indeed, current reporting is that the White House will move quickly to nominate Jaczko’s replacement (and rumors are it will be a woman), and that the administration is in consultation with Reid to choose someone he will help move through the Senate confirmation process. It is hard to believe Reid will look kindly upon any nominee interested in re-starting the Yucca Mountain process.

. . . timing

It is said that, in life, timing is everything. In politics, money probably keeps timing from cornering the be-all-end-all market, but timing has played a part in the NRC’s saga. As Reid hopes to use this moment to keep his objectives on course, the nuclear industry is trying to desperately to turn back time to an era where the term “nuclear renaissance” wasn’t said with a smirk and a glance eastward toward Japan.

As with Yucca Mountain, where atom-loving electeds and regulators scramble to get the federal government to take their waste–with its risks and expense–off of the nuclear industry’s hands, the threat of new safety rules (and their perceived expense) emerging from the post-Fukushima review also motivated a profit-centric industry to step up their efforts to remake the NRC in their own image.

As noted here in December, Darrell Issa’s public release of the commissioners’ letter complaining about Jaczko was oddly timed:

[T]hough the commissioners’ complaint was written and delivered to the White House in October, it was only made public by Rep. Issa last Friday. A slot usually reserved for news dumps seems like bad timing if Issa and his allies wanted to create a splash, unless you consider that Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) had planned to release a report on Monday showing how NRC commissioners had coordinated with pro-nuclear legislators to slow or stop post-Fukushima safety reforms. Markey’s report (PDF) includes emails revealing commissioner Magwood and staffers for pro-nuclear Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) worked together to discredit Jaczko for taking the lead on the US regulatory response to Fukushima.

And as reported in October, this behavior was not new for Magwood. During his time at the Department of Energy, Magwood held private meetings with top nuclear industry lobbyist Marvin Fertel. In December, Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post detailed–in a scenario eerily similar to what culminated this week–how Magwood and his industry friends worked behind the scenes to oust his superior at DoE.

It also deserves mentioning that between his time in the George W. Bush Energy Department and his appointment to the NRC by President Obama, Magwood formed the consulting firm Advanced Energy Strategies, whose clients included not only TEPCO, the nominal owner of Fukushima Daiichi (until the Japanese government finishes its bailout/buyout), but a veritable who’s who of the Japanese nuclear elite.

As discussed above, Jaczko was the only NRC commissioner who voted to include future post-Fukushima rules in the licensing requirements for new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina. Both those projects are still wanting for full financing, and Georgia’s reactors are already behind schedule and, as revealed recently, nearly $1 billion over budget. The last thing the industry wants to see are demands for pricy safety upgrades or reminders of all that can go wrong at a nuclear plant. Jaczko’s desire for inclusion of Fukushima “lessons learned” held out a threat (however weak) of both.

Weak in review

But it was the rather weak recommendations, the glacial pace of change, and the seemingly futile lone votes against four other commissioners in the nuclear industry’s hip pocket that also helped end Jaczko’s run as NRC chair.

Theoretically, election cycles are when elected officials are most responsive to public pressure, but what part of the public felt particularly compelled to fight on Jaczko’s behalf? As stated during an earlier act in this power play, the nuclear industry and its acolytes were never going to see Jaczko as anything but the enemy, but the chairman’s “moderate” response to the Fukushima moment, along with the continued granting of license extensions to aging nuclear plants, and his oft-repeated statements of faith in the broken regulatory process left Jaczko with no strong allies in the anti-nuclear movement. Between the ongoing Fukushima disaster and the dynamics of an election year, the timing could have been favorable for a regulator bold enough to dare to regulate.

Instead, Chairman Jaczko, who no doubt saw his split-the-middle path as a reasonable one, was left alone to watch as his colleague, Bill Magwood, helped orchestrate a coup, and as his benefactor, Harry Reid, moved to cut his losses. For America, however, losses have not been cut–nuclear power is still a perpetual economic sinkhole and a looming ecological disaster–and no matter how the politicians try to massage the regulatory process, the science that makes nuclear power so untenable remains constant.

Constant, too, is the global trend–most of the industrialized world is turning away from this dirty, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive way to boil water. Jaczko’s chairmanship of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be at its dénouement, but that does nothing to magically create a nuclear renaissance. The good and bad news here is that all of nuclear power’s problems are just as real and just as pressing, with or without Greg Jaczko.

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Gregory Jaczko Has a Cold

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (photo: pennstatelive)

In April 1966, Esquire Magazine published a story by Gay Talese that is still considered one of the greatest magazine articles of all time; the article, the cover story, was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

The piece, still very much worth the read, says much about celebrity, journalism, and, of course, celebrity journalism, but germane here is a point Talese makes early on: for most people, having a cold is a trivial matter–after all, it’s called the “common” cold–but when a man, a cultural icon, a giant of stage and screen like Sinatra (remember, this is 1966) has a cold, well. . . .

Frank Sinatra with a cold is a big deal. It affects him, his mood, his ability to perform, and so it affects his friends, his entourage, his personal staff of 75, his audience, and perhaps a part of the greater popular culture. In other words, as Talese wants you to understand, in this case, a cold is anything but trivial.

Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made some comments to the press earlier this week. Jaczko, it seems, is worried. He believes, as noted in an Associated Press story, that “U.S. nuclear plant operators have become complacent, just nine months after the nuclear disaster in Japan.” The NRC head thinks that a slew of events at over a dozen domestic nuclear facilities reveal the safety of America’s reactors to be something less than optimal.

To be clear, safety concerns at any kind of plant, be it a soda bottler or a microchip manufacturer, are probably not trivial, but when the safe and secure operation of a nuclear facility comes into question–as the aftermath of Chernobyl or the ongoing crisis in Japan will tell you–it ratchets up concern to a whole different level. So, when the man who more or less serves as the chief safety officer for the entirety of the nation’s nuclear infrastructure says he’s worried, many, many other people should be worried, too.

To put it another way, Greg Jaczko has a cold.

But that’s not the scariest part.

When Frank Sinatra had a cold, he knew he had a cold–pretty much everyone knew he had a cold. It was unpleasant for all of them, but forewarned is forearmed. Jaczko, though, doesn’t know–or won’t acknowledge–he’s sick. As relayed by the AP:

Jaczko said he was not ready to declare a decline in safety performance at U.S. plants, but said problems were serious enough to indicate a “precursor” to a performance decline.

Pardon my acronym, but WTF does “‘precursor’ to a performance decline” mean?

It sounds like a way to talk about erectile dysfunction, but perhaps a more accurate analogy is to say that Greg Jaczko has just told us that, yes, actually, you can be a little bit pregnant.

Of course, that is not true. Either safety–with regards to protocols, equipment and people–is up to snuff, or it is not. As Jaczko observes–and the many “unusual events” he has had to deal with this year make clear–the safety of America’s nuclear reactors is not where it needs to be:

Mr. Jaczko said the NRC has noticed an increase in “possible declines in performance” at some U.S. nuclear facilities, including instances of human error that almost exposed workers to high levels of radiation. He said a number of nuclear plants have experienced safety challenges in recent months, and that two of the plants were having significant issues.

The chairman’s classic understatement here is magnified by the Wall Street Journal. Beyond the fact that “possible declines in performance” means flat-out “declines in performance,” the human error referred to here didn’t “almost” expose workers to high levels of radiation–the accidents at Cooper Nuclear Station in Nebraska and the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio most definitively exposed workers to high (and possibly dangerously high) levels of radiation.

And the two plants having significant issues–which would those be? Would they be Crystal River in Florida, where news of a third major crack in the containment building recently came to light, and Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun, which is still shut down after flooding earlier this year? Or might they be New Hampshire’s Seabrook, where crumbling concrete was discovered in November, a month after the plant had to shut down because of low water levels, and Vermont Yankee, where radioactive tritium continues to leak into the Connecticut River?

Or maybe Jaczko was referencing North Anna, which of course scrammed when the Mineral Springs, VA, earthquake shook the reactors well in excess of their designed tolerances. Or maybe he’s including Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, where a piece of siding blown off by Hurricane Irene shorted a transformer, and the resulting loss of power to safety systems caused its reactor to scram. And who can forget Michigan’s Palisades nuclear power plant, which had to vent radioactive steam when it scrammed after worker error triggered a series of electrical issues?

Is it possible the NRC head was thinking of the constantly troubled Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio? Probably not–since the Commission just (as in 4:40 PM on Friday, December 2) okayed a restart there, despite serious concerns about numerous cracks in its shield building. But perhaps Jaczko should think again–on December 7, one day after the reactor restart, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s operator, admitted that they had withheld news of new cracks on a different part of the structure, which were discovered in November. (FirstEnergy says that they only withheld the information from the public, and that they did report it to regulators–which raises grave questions about the honesty, independence and competency of the NRC and how it could approve a restart.)

Representative Dennis Kucinich, by the way, is thinking of Davis-Besse. The Ohio Democrat had called for public hearings in advance of the restart, and is now criticizing both FirstEnergy and the NRC for their lack of candor about the new cracking.

Kucinich appears to understand something that Jaczko does not: when it comes to oversight of the nuclear industry, there is no room for even the germ of a doubt.

To extend the illness-as-metaphor metaphor a little further, there is a construction often used to imply the broadly felt repercussions of a single action or a major actor: When “x” sneezes, “y” catches a cold. The phrase is believed to have started during the worldwide depression that spread after the U.S. stock market crash of 1929–as in, “When America sneezes, the whole world catches cold.” The cliché has come back into vogue during the last three years of global economic tumult, but it could easily be adapted to the ongoing perils of nuclear power.

On November 26, the Asahi Shimbun gave the world another measure of just how big a disaster the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility has become:

Radioactive substances from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have now been confirmed in all prefectures, including Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, about 1,700 kilometers from the plant, according to the science ministry.

The ministry said it concluded the radioactive substances came from the stricken nuclear plant because, in all cases, they contained cesium-134, which has short half-life of two years.

Before the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, radioactive substance were barely detectable in most areas.

Or, it could be said, when Fukushima sneezed, all of Japan caught a cold.

And not just Japan, of course. Fallout from Fukushima has drifted halfway around the world. Radioactive isotopes directly linked to Japan’s crippled reactors have been detected in milk and vegetables across the U.S. and Canada. And the Pacific Ocean, too, has been contaminated–and continues to be more so. December brings news of new leaks sending more radioactive runoff from the Japanese reactors into the sea. Tens of thousands of tons of overspill have already flowed into the waters around Japan’s northeastern coast–bringing levels of radioactivity to thousands of times what is considered acceptable–and TEPCO, still nominally the Fukushima’s operator, just had to scrap plans to dump untold tons more after protests from Japanese, Chinese, and Korean fishing concerns. (The contaminated water, still collecting at the plant at a rate of 200 to 500 tons a day, will exceed the facility’s 155,000-ton storage capacity by March.)

The effects of bioaccumulation–as dangerous isotopes move with global tides, and contaminated fish (and their contaminated predators) migrate–presents scientists with a long-term research project where much of the world’s population will serve as unwilling subjects.

And, as has been noted here many times, the crisis is far from over. Even TEPCO’s own conservative (or is that “dishonest?”) models now confirm a core melt-through in reactor 1. TEPCO officials insist that somehow they will cool the surrounding steel or concrete enough to stop the molten corium from going further, but the architect of Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 3, Uehara Haruo, sees things very differently. As relayed by Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, Haruo says:

It is only a matter of time before the molten core, at least of Unit 1–if not Units 2 and 3–does reach ground water, and if it hits it right. . . you’re going to have a powerful steam explosion.

And, as Kamps explains, that steam explosion will again send massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. As longtime nuclear activists Paul Gunter recently put it, “It’s pins and needles time,” implying that while much is unknown about what is going on inside the destroyed reactors, nothing indicates TEPCO is gaining the upper hand on this dire situation.

Yet, with all this–with the spreading fallout, the continuing radioactive water leaks, and the real threat of what so many refer to as a “China Syndrome” event–NRC Chair Jaczko worries that the U.S. nuclear industry has become complacent about the safety gaps highlighted by the Fukushima disaster. Given the evidence–and given that the NRC itself spent all summer studying the crisis and drafting recommendations based on “lessons learned”–it is hard to believe complacency is really the problem. It is probably even too generous to say that the industry suffers from willful ignorance. No, when considering the contagion spreading from Japan and the coughs and hiccups that are practically weekly here in the United States, it is probably more accurate to say that the profit-driven, government-protected nuclear sector is actively callous.

The risks, after all, of the nuclear business model are not borne by power companies. In the U.S., federal loan guarantees, state tax breaks and utility rate hikes insulate nuclear operators from the costs of slipshod construction, poor training, and malign management. Even without that, perhaps the only lesson the domestic nuclear industry will choose to learn from Fukushima is that when a catastrophe like this happens, the government is given no choice but to step in. (Beyond the price of the cleanup, and the healthcare and relocation of those in severely contaminated regions, note how TEPCO’s stock price fell all week after word leaked that the Japanese Government would buy $13 billion worth of new shares.)

So, what’s a chief regulator to do? Given the overwhelming evidence of industry arrogance in the face of real danger, Jaczko could have an “I am Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” moment, seize his birthright, as it were, and actually demand compliance from the industry he has been tasked to oversee–but, judging from his tone in many interviews, and the continuing approvals of new and renewed operating licenses, it seems more like the NRC chief will remain the Hamlet of the first four acts of the play.

WWSD–What Would Sinatra Do? Read through the Esquire piece and see how, despite his froggy throat and foul mood, Sinatra takes control of his world. In the end, as Sinatra drives his Karmann Ghia down a sunny LA street, a pedestrian sees him through the windshield and stares, wondering, “Could it be? Is it?” Sinatra, knowing he has done what needed to be done–and done it well–stares back, as if to confidently say, “Yes, it is.”

Gregory Jaczko would do well to read (or maybe re-read–who knows?) “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Even if his nuclear rat pack won’t learn the lessons of Fukushima, the NRC chairman could learn a thing or two from the Chairman of the Board. Let’s hope Jaczko does so before his cold gets worse–because the possibility of another Fukushima, here in the United States, is nothing to sneeze at.

Greenpeace Activists Enter French Nuclear Plant, Hang Banner to Highlight Lax Security

EDF's nuclear plant at Nogent-sur-Seine, France (photo: Aramis1955)

You Just Can’t Find Good Help These Days.

Not only were members of Greenpeace able to get past the security guarding at least one, and possibly three, nuclear facilities in France, they were able to plan and execute this operation less than a month after the plant operator, French energy giant EDF, was fined 1.5 million Euros ($2 million) for hacking into Greenpeace computers.

So, how bad is security at France’s 58 nuclear power plants? You be the judge:

Activists from environmental group Greenpeace managed to sneak into a nuclear power plant near Paris Monday in a move they said highlighted the dangers posed by France’s reliance on atomic energy.

. . . .

In a statement, Greenpeace said some members had entered the nuclear site at Nogent-sur-Seine, 95 kilometers southeast of Paris, to “spread the message that there is no such thing as safe nuclear power.”

“A group of militants managed to climb on to the dome of one of the reactors, where they unfurled a banner saying ‘Safe Nuclear Power Doesn’t Exist,’” said Greenpeace spokesman Axel Renaudin.

“The aim is to show the vulnerability of French nuclear installations, and how easy it is to get to the heart of a reactor,” said Sophia Majnoni, a Greenpeace nuclear expert.

Greenpeace activists also hung banners at two other EDF plants (EDF–or Electricite de France SA–runs all of France’s nuclear power stations), but as of this writing it is not yet clear whether those banners were unfurled in- or outside of security gates.

The government of Nicolas Sarkozy has demonstrated a full-throated commitment to nuclear energy–despite popular calls in the wake of the Fukushima crisis for a reexamination of the dominant role nuclear plays in generating France’s electricity. Just last month, thousands of French protestors delayed a convoy of nuclear waste from being transported to Germany (the hazardous waste has since made it across the border). Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel has signaled her country will phase out nuclear power in the next ten years.

The Party Line – September 16, 2011: Though Nuclear Crisis Continues, IAEA Can’t Force Safety Overhaul

On Monday, September 12, an incinerator explosion at a French nuclear waste processing center killed one, injured four, and created just enough nuclear news to edge this week’s other nuclear story right out of the headlines.

The explosion, which is reported not to have caused any leak of radiation, was at a facility that reprocesses used nuclear reactor fuel in order to create a more toxic, less stable form of fuel commonly known as “mixed oxide” or MOX. MOX, which is a tasty blend of uranium and plutonium, was in at least some of the rods in some of the reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility when it suffered catastrophic failures after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami–and the presence of MOX fuel made the fallout from explosions at the Japanese plant more dangerous as a result. (More dangerous than already extremely dangerous might seem like a trivial addendum, but it is of note if for no other reason than the manufacture and use of MOX fuel is what nuclear power proponents think of when they call it a “renewable resource.”)

And it was the Fukushima disaster that brought diplomats, nuclear scientists, and government regulators to the negotiating table in Vienna for this week’s annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. At issue, a June proposal by IAEA chief Yukia Amano that the world’s nuclear nations respond to the Japanese crisis with tougher safety regulations and mandatory inspections.

The proposal–which included a one-year deadline for new safety standards and an 18-month window for stress tests on all reactors–had the backing of large nuclear power-generating nations such as Canada, Germany, and Australia, as well as many non-nuclear nations across the globe, but that support and the ongoing disaster in Japan were not enough to overcome sustained, behind-the-scenes efforts to derail this plan. When the IAEA finally took up a draft resolution on Tuesday, it contained no timelines, deadlines or mandatory inspections. Instead, IAEA safety checks, peer reviews, and other moves to ensure nuclear safety may be taken up “upon request” of the nuclear state in question.

Which parties were behind the near-total neutering of the IAEA proposal? Who was responsible for reassuring the global nuclear power industry that virtually no lessons would be learned from the continuing crisis in Japan? It should be no surprise to find traditional foes of nuclear oversight such as Russia, China, Pakistan, and India (along with Argentina) pushing hard against the IAEA. And, given Barack Obama’s very public proclamations of support for nuclear power within days of the Japanese quake, it should probably also not surprise anyone to find the United States right there with them:

[T]he United States was also comfortable with the decision to strip the plan of language entrusting the agency with more clout that was present in earlier drafts and leaving oversight to governments, national safety authorities and power companies. . . .

And now, courtesy of the same AP story, the comic relief:

Such a stance reflects Washington’s strong belief in domestic regulatory bodies having full control of nuclear safety.

The Associated Press, which deserves immense credit for this summer’s exposé on the cozy relationship government regulators have with the nuclear industry it is supposed to police, clearly didn’t give this story the same level of effort (click through for the amusing use of the word “establish” in the penultimate paragraph). . . or maybe it did, and is just bad at communicating the sarcasm. As documented in the months since the start of the Fukushima crisis, a small collection of too-weak recommendations from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force is now dying a slow death thanks to lobbying from the nuclear industry, and the NRC commissioners and elected officials receptive to it.

This week’s physical explosion might have taken place in southern France, but the shot that needs to be heard around the world is the IAEA firing blanks, thanks in part to the concerted efforts of a United States government in the grip of a dangerous but powerful industry. At the same time a relative non-event like the Solyndra bankruptcy seems to be growing scandalous legs thanks to obsessive media attention, the real Obama administration scandal is its addiction to old, expensive, dangerous, and non-renewable forms of energy. (See here, too, a very interesting piece tying America’s decline to dwindling petroleum supplies.) That this “The business of America is business-as-usual” story has not made headlines is, itself, probably not news, but what can–and likely will someday–happen because the US government is adamant that Fukushima changes nothing will not be so easy to ignore.

The Party Line – September 2, 2011: Earthquakes, Hurricane Highlight Serious Flaws with Nuclear Power and its Regulation

On Friday, August 26, as Hurricane Irene began its slow journey up the US central Atlantic coast, power companies operating 20 nuclear reactors in nine states made plans to deal with the storm and its potential aftermath.

North Carolina’s Brunswick reactors, operated by Progress Energy, were powered down to 70 percent of peak capacity. At New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, near Barnegat Bay, plant operator Exelon chose to shutdown its reactor completely. Dominion Resources, owner of New London, Connecticut’s Millstone plant took one reactor down to 70 percent, the other to 50 percent.

Dominion’s Surry plant in Virginia stayed at full power, as did Entergy’s Indian Point, 35 miles north of New York City, and the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts.

The reason some plants chose to reduce output or go offline was because, if an accident caused or required the plant to scram–that is, quickly and completely shut down–the stress on the reactor increases the chance of a future safety breach. As Bob Alvarez, of the Institute for Policy Studies, explains:

Keep in mind that when these large reactors scram, it’s like a jumbo jet making a quick forced landing. The sudden insertion of control rods creates unexpected stress on the reactor. This is why when a reactor is normally shut-down for refueling, it is done gradually. If a reactor experiences several scrams during a year, this should raise a red nuclear safety flag.

While working in DOE, I was involved in energy emergency planning, and electricity blackouts, NRC staff were definitely concerned about the safety of increased scrams caused by forced power outages.

By reducing output, a reactor comes under less stress during a rapid shutdown. It is like hitting the brakes at 35 mph as opposed to slamming them on at 60 mph. The stop is faster and results in less wear-and-tear on the vehicle.

One plant that decided not to reduce output was Constellation Energy Group’s Calvert Cliffs facility near Lusby, Maryland. That was probably a mistake:

A nuclear power reactor automatically went offline late Saturday in Calvert Cliffs after its main transformer was hit by a piece of aluminum siding that Hurricane Irene had peeled off a building. . . .

A follow-up NRC Daily Event Report filed on August 29 by Constellation Energy to the NRC identified that the wind blown debris crashed into an electrical transformer at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear station causing an electrical short and “An unanticipated explosion within the Protected Area resulting in visible damage to permanent structures or equipment.”

To be clear, automatically going offline is a scram.

That is bad news for CEG, which has to keep the reactor offline pending a full inspection by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it might have actually been good news for the surrounding communities. As it turns out, the transformer explosion was not the only problem encountered at Calvert Cliffs during Irene’s visit. As the NRC’s August 29 Daily Event Report [PDF] states:

At 2400, 8/27/2011, numerous alarms on the 1A DG [Diesel Generator] started to be received. These were investigated and it was found that water was intruding down the DG exhaust piping resulting in a DC ground. Based on these indications the 1A DG was declared inoperable and appropriate technical specifications implemented.

In other words, the backup power generator would not have worked if the Calvert Cliffs reactor had lost its main power source. As previously observed, nuclear plants require a steady stream of electric power to operate safely, as cooling systems and monitoring devices depend on it.

It was also noted in the NRC event report that Hurricane Irene “disabled public notification sirens in two counties in the reactor’s emergency planning zone.” They lost power, and CEG had not provided any battery back-up system. So, if an accident severe enough to require precautions or evacuation took place that night, large numbers of people would have been left in the dark, as it were. As the editors of Beyond Nuclear put it, “So much for defense in depth.”

And so much for oversight, it seems. The problems at Calvert Cliffs are not really a revelation–at least not to the NRC:

Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Southern Maryland is due for closer scrutiny by federal regulators after unspecified security lapses discovered there earlier this year.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has finalized a “greater than green” finding of security deficiencies spotted during a special inspection from January to July of this year, according to a letter released Wednesday. The agency has not disclosed the nature of the problems, saying that releasing such information might help someone to attack or sabotage the twin-reactor plant in Lusby in Calvert County.

That is the sum total of an item in the August 31 Baltimore Sun. Curious civilians with an abundance of time can access some of the reports through the NRC’s Calvert Cliffs page, but there is no digest for lay readers.

And even the untrained eye might take issue in light of recent developments. For instance, a May report [PDF] on an inspection instigated in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster gave a passing grade to backup equipment designed to kick-in if a so-called SBO, or Site Blackout, occurred. As observed, rainfall from Irene rendered a backup diesel generator inoperable.

The lingering safety questions, coupled with dual mishaps caused by high winds and heavy rain, appear not to have resulted in a dangerous event at Calvert Cliffs this time. However, it is just this kind of “what are the chances?” one-two punch that so exacerbated the crisis in Japan, and it is events like this that again should serve as an urgent wakeup call for regulators and legislators alike to quickly implement safety improvements to America’s nuclear facilities.

But step back, and an even larger systemic problem takes shape. Each private energy company made its own decisions on what to do with each of its reactors in the face of an approaching (and somewhat predictable) natural disaster. The call on whether to decrease output or shutdown reactors in advance was not the federal government’s call, not the NRC’s, and not the call of at-risk states or municipalities. There is no federal rule, and, apparently, no federal authority to direct plants on how to operate in cases of multi-region events such as a hurricane.

The NRC’s post-Fukushima-disaster task force did not specifically address this issue, but it did recommend a reexamination of the way the entirety of US nuclear power generation is regulated. The majority of NRC commissioners, however, found even that vague recommendation to be too urgent, and any consideration of this question is now at least 18 months away.

Meanwhile, at North Anna’s quake-damaged plant. . . .

On August 26, Dominion, the company that operates the reactors at Virginia’s North Anna plant, notified the NRC that the 5.8 magnitude Earthquake centered in Mineral, Virginia, might have caused more shaking than the facility was designed to withstand. (Some confusion has surrounded the seismic standard to which North Anna was built. The tolerances are often shorthanded to a Richter scale magnitude number, but, in fact, plant design is supposed to be evaluated against the amount of shaking a quake will cause. Shaking at one point depends on magnitude, but also on the distance from the epicenter and the depth of the quake, as well as other geological factors.) Full results of an examination of the “shake plates” (which measure ground motion) are supposed to be released later today (September 2).

What is already known, though, is that the shaking caused many of North Anna’s dry casks–a type of spent-fuel storage container–to move by as much as four inches. Twenty-five of the 27 vertical casks moved as a result of the quake. Each of those steel and concrete casks contains 32 spent fuel rods and weighs 115 tons. Newer horizontal casks did not move, but some of the 26 (13 already full of spent fuel) show what has been termed “cosmetic damage” to exterior concrete.

As discussed, but, as noted here, not addressed in the NRC task force report, dry cask storage is preferable to the spent fuel pools where “fresher” old fuel is stored at most US plants. Pools require a dependable electrical source to keep liquid circulating and completely covering stored fuel rods. An interruption of power or damage to the cooling system can cause dangerous conditions where the liquid overheats, boils away, and even “cracks” as a result of the nuclear reaction, which accelerates as the pools heat and disappear, and hydrogen explosions are possible, further damaging the vessels and sending radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Dry casks store fuel further removed from “active service,” and are cooled by naturally circulating air.

While the March quake and tsunami provoked the described dangerous events in Fukushima Daiichi’s spent fuel pools, there are no reports of any problems with any of Japan’s dry casks.

But the movement of and damage to North Anna’s casks, though minor, is not meaningless. Beyond the contrasts with liquid storage, the August event highlights the lack of a national repository for spent-but-still-highly-radioactive nuclear fuel. Fifty-five of the nation’s nuclear facilities currently have dry casks on site, but the United States has no centralized facility for the long-term storage. And, since the Obama administration declared Nevada’s partially built Yucca Mountain repository closed, the US has no current plan for the disposal of this dangerous material.

The NRC Fukushima task force acknowledges the need for a long-term plan, but there exist no specific recommendations and no process or funding for developing any.

And speaking of Fukushima. . . .

Al Jazeera has a disturbing report on radioactive waste from the ongoing nuclear disaster overwhelming sewage treatment facilities hundreds of miles from Fukushima.

In Japan, before March, processed sewage sludge was often shipped out for use by fertilizer and concrete manufacturers. But now, even far from the destroyed nuclear plant, the sewage is too dangerous for any use. As a result, piles of highly radioactive sludge are accumulating at sewage plants that have no capacity or expertise for handling the toxic material. Instead, containers and piles of sludge are just being lined up at the processing plants, out in the open, covered by simple plastic tarps. Workers are told they face no imminent danger, but Geiger counters say otherwise.

 

The Japanese government has no plan for dealing with this latest sinister wrinkle, saying only that it is not yet an urgent problem.

Such a lack of urgency is stunning and sad for a country and a people so directly in harm’s way, but a similar lackadaisical, industry-coddling attitude in the US should be no less troubling. True, nothing as terrible as Japan’s catastrophe has yet occurred at an American nuclear plant, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility, as almost every passing week or natural disaster seems to accentuate.

Theoretically, the United States has a body tasked with responding to these new probabilities–the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And if the NRC won’t do its job, the US has a body with strict oversight powers–Congress. The Congress and the president also have the ability to demand from the nuclear industry improvements in safety and emergency preparedness in exchange for the federal subsidies and loan guarantees the industry needs to operate at all.

But if the Commission or the politicians cannot break free of their cozy relationships with–and the campaign donations from–private energy companies, then who or what, beyond nature, will hold the nuclear industry accountable?

The lifespan of a nuclear plant or a political career is short, but the half-life of many byproducts of nuclear power generation is long. In some cases, very, very long. Is any nation’s political system able to take that long a view?